documenta. Politics and Art

Raphael Gross | 18 June 2021

On our blog page we are publishing the speech that Prof. Dr Raphael Gross, President of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM), held on the occasion of the opening of the exhibition “documenta. Politics and Art” on 16 June 2021.

When I came to the Deutsches Historisches Museum in 2017, I thought in a very general sense about what it really means to show objects in a museum of history. And then: in what way do artworks change in a historical museum, and become sources. It was actually a complete accident that these deliberations turned my attention to our topic today, the documenta in the time from 1955 to 1997. And there were not just a few people who were of the opinion that this would not be a proper topic for a museum of history. At the time, I was able to fly to the USA and speak with the custodians of the Harald Szeemann estate in Los Angeles, and in New York with the curators of the MoMa, and discuss how they assessed the impact of the documenta. It took more than a year for me to win over four researchers, one after the other, to act as curators and experts on this project. In a first step, we came together in an international symposium from our “Historical Judgement” series, devoted on the one hand to the history of the documenta and the relationship between art and politics, and on the other to a complementary theme, namely the continuing influence after the war of the so-called “divinely gifted” visual artists who had been thus designated on a list compiled by Hitler and Goebbels.

As you can see, for me it was not about writing a history of the documenta. Instead, it was about the question of how you can think about art in a historical museum and what you can accomplish by examining it here. But now we have a problem:

When the gates of the ruins of the Fridericianum in Kassel were first opened for the “World Art Exhibition”, the first documenta, on 15 July 1955, the leading initiators around the artist and curator Arnold Bode and the noted art historian Werner Haftmann set out with no less an ambition than to rehabilitate the standing of Modern Art, which had been vilified during the National Socialist period. By harking back to pre-Nazi Modern Art, the breach was to be “cemented” and the continuity of art set forth, and in this way to postulate an artistic and aesthetic fresh beginning. In reality, with this conception, the documenta was acting against the cultural-political guidelines of the Adenauer era, which were oriented on conservative cultural values and had little appetite for Modern Art. Behind the façade of setting itself off from Nazi art, however, there were, in fact, many continuities leading directly from the National Socialist era to that present time. And the contemporary critical attitude vis-à-vis conditions in the Federal Republic paled.

The year 1955 marked a decisive political turning point in West-German history. With the coming into force of the Bonn-Paris Conventions, the last fetters of the Allied occupation status were nearly shaken off. The Federal Republic had (largely) regained its sovereignty. Moreover, the young West-German republic was now taken into the Atlantic military alliance NATO and integrated into the newly formed Western European Union, with which the Federal Republic had now once again become part of the Western community of states. Beyond this international rehabilitation which, to an essential degree, had resulted from the dynamic of the Cold War, there was still considerable tension in Germany’s relations with numerous West-European countries that had been occupied by Nazi Germany. Territorial and financial reparation claims were still to be clarified, and relations with the once again aspiring Germany remained in part, to put it mildly, chilly.

The high-profile, international show in Kassel sent out positive signals abroad, which were necessary and politically opportune. With the exclusion of Socialist Realism, which Haftmann claimed was the opposite of Modern Art, the exhibition-makers set down a firm boundary between East and West. And by doing this, they underscored ideologically – as if with a sign-board – the foreign-policy guidelines of the Federal Republic, namely, the West integration.

Concerning the inner-German dealings with the Nazi past, the year 1955 also represents a stage that was by no means unessential. Konrad Adenauer’s policy towards the past had reached an endpoint. The last amnesty law had been passed in 1954, the rehabilitation of the so-called 131’s, i.e., the civil servants burdened by their Nazi past, had been carried out, and precisely in September, the month when the documenta came to an end, Adenauer had accomplished the return of the last prisoners of war from the Soviet Union.

Self-critical confrontations with the Nazi past were hardly to be found in the political discourse and public debates of the time. In the 1950s, practically no one would have noticed that the Holocaust was entirely missing from the documenta; not even works by Jewish artists who had been murdered by the Nazis were shown. For in this respect, the documenta was right in line with the discourse at the time, or rather the non-discourse.

For many years there was great unanimity between the self-image of the documenta and its reception. The documenta understood itself as a counter-model to the concept of art of National Socialism and of Communism. And it was therefore described again and again in this way in numerous articles and self-representations. However, in the course of our research, an entirely contrary finding emerged: the documenta stood – just as the Federal Republic altogether – both in respect to the biographies of its curators and in the semantics of its content in a complicated relationship between continuity and breach with National Socialism. While on the one hand the curators endeavoured to distance themselves from an art-historical viewpoint from the National Socialist period and to focus on Modern Art in their exhibitions, they failed to show any Jewish artists, with the exception of Chagall, in the first documenta. And until very recently, it was not known that the leading intellectual mind of the first documenta exhibitions, Werner Haftmann, had been wanted in Italy only a few years earlier for the torture and murder of Italian partisans. What do these findings mean for our image of the documenta today? What things change when we take account of them in our narrative of the history of the documenta?

First of all, it is difficult for us to answer these questions today. The research will certainly go on. We have brought it a bit forward through our exhibition. It will contribute to widening the gulf between the self-image and the perception of the documenta. And this, we can already see by the current reactions, is not to be had without causing feelings of hurt and affront. And I do not want to delegate this to the outside world only in an abstract sense. We, too, who have been dealing so intensively with the documenta in the past few years are of course impressed and influenced by what the co-curator Dorothee Wierling has so neatly formulated: “It was a big, wild thing.” And correspondingly, it was even for us with our historical approach not irrelevant that the result of our efforts to draw nearer to this myth with the means of historical research turns out to show that it has lost a bit of its mystique. Before this backdrop, the reactions that at first negated our new state of research or that withdrew into very general and non-committal interpretations of the time are entirely understandable. Nevertheless, from historical research we expect precision and fidelity to the sources, just as we expect authenticity from art. And so perhaps I do not need apologise for having taken up this topic here in the DHM. I think that we have learned something about the significance of government-promoted art for German history and, on top of that, something about the politicising of art and the aestheticising of politics.